Work-life balance for new teachers

By Sandy Millin

You’re in your first year of teaching. It’s the weekend, but you can’t relax. You can’t remember the last time you didn’t feel stressed. There are lessons to plan, essays to mark, registers to complete, lessons to plan, reports to write, materials to cut up, oh, and don’t forget, lessons to plan. You haven’t eaten a proper meal all week, you have no idea when you’re going to fit in washing your clothes or cleaning your flat, and you don’t have anyone to talk to about the constant state of mild panic you find yourself in. Was it really the right decision to become a teacher?

Hard as it may seem to believe, we’ve all been there. In my first year as a teacher, my colleague and I used to spend around 15 hours of our weekend in the staffroom, planning all of our lessons for the week. We thought it would make the rest of the week easier, but it never did. Around February, we decided to stop going to school at the weekends, but I probably still did the same amount of work at home! I don’t think I really started exploring the Czech Republic at weekends until about halfway through my second year, unless a friend made me stop working. Achieving a work-life balance is still something I find challenging, but I’ve got better at it over time. It takes work and effort, but it’s worth it. Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years.

Add relaxation to your to-do list

If you include relaxation time on your to-do list, you can cross it out and destress at the same time! This could just be 30 minutes to watch an episode of your favourite TV show, or time to do yoga. My weekend to-do list often has ‘walk’ on it, because otherwise I might not leave the flat that day!

Take regular breaks

It’s much more effective to work for short bursts of time with breaks in between than to push yourself to get everything done without stopping. Without breaks, you wind yourself up and wind yourself up and wind yourself up, and never give yourself time to wind down fully. Investigate things like the Pomidoro technique, where you work for 25 minutes then take a 5-minute break. You can also download software for both PCs and Macs which block your screen for a pre-set amount of time at intervals you set — mine is set to block for 15 seconds after 25 minutes and 5 minutes after an hour. This makes me stand up and walk around, though I do override it sometimes.

Not sure what to do when you take a break? Start by looking up ‘50 ways to take a break’, an excellent poster which I have as my desktop background. Apart from those ideas, listen to your body. If you’re falling asleep, take a nap. If you’re feeling stiff, stretch. If you’re hungry, eat something, preferably something healthy! If you’re thirsty, drink water. Ignoring what your body is telling you will make you less efficient in the short-term, and potentially lead to illness in the long-term. Taking breaks also applies to having proper time off during the week, with at least half a day of no work if that’s all you can manage, but preferably a full day a week, and two in an ideal world.

Don’t take work home

If you commit to finishing work at work, it’s easier to separate your work and private life. You might find you need to go in an hour or two earlier, or stay a little later, but once you’ve left the building time is your own. But remember that work expands to fill the time available to do it in: give yourself clear time limits. Reflect on whether the time limits you have given yourself are realistic, and adjust them in the future, or ask people for tips to make you more efficient so that you can meet your shorter time limits and keep work at work. This is something I’m still working on after eleven years of teaching.

Let yourself make mistakes

There’s no such thing as the perfect lesson. Without mistakes, nobody improves: they are how you become a better teacher. That doesn’t mean that you should scrap planning, but don’t agonise over every detail of your lessons either. An over-planned lesson leaves little space for student responses, and means you end up trying to work through everything on the plan rather than teaching the students in front of you. Read about the 80/20 rule: 20% of the work you do yields 80% of the results and vice versa. Instead of aiming for 100%, allow room to see what happens, and remember that even if you think it’s a ‘mistake’, the students probably won’t even notice!

Plan meals and bulk cook

One of the easiest things to neglect when you’re busy and stressed is eating properly. Taking 3-4 hours to plan your meals for the week and bulk cook is a good way to eat more healthily and save money too. Cooking can also be a good way to relax. Easy one-pot meals include soups, stews, and anything with rice. To add variety, freeze a couple of portions for later weeks, or find another teacher to swap meals with on one or two days a week. When I worked at IH Newcastle, another teacher and I had an arrangement: on Tuesdays I brought food for both of us, on Thursdays she did. It didn’t matter if it was something home-made or if it was from a packet. This was a great way to try new food and meant one day less when I had to think about what to eat.

Push yourself to be social

When you’re working in a new place, it can feel difficult to have a social life, especially if it’s a new town or city. It takes an investment of time to build relationships and make friends, and you have to factor this in: instant friendship is hard to find. Ask around for places to meet people, such as language exchanges or social events. You could also look at Couchsurfing message boards for your area, or even post your own messages. Find a class to join, or arrange to meet people to do something specific, like playing a board game. This gives the conversation some kind of focus and helps to break the ice. Suggest things to do with the people you have already met, and don’t worry that they might say no: that’s true, but they might also say yes! Even if you only ever meet up with those people once, that’s better than nothing, and gets you away from lesson planning for at least a little while. Including other people in your social plans is a good way to make it harder to back out of them and ensure you get that much-needed break.

Think about your students

Ultimately, our teaching is all about doing the best we can for our students. A teacher who is living, not just working, is a more interesting person to be around. A teacher who is well-rested has mental space to pay attention in the classroom. A teacher who is looking after themselves can better look after their students. Please invest time in your work-life balance and be that teacher!

Author's bio: Sandy Millin is the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz in Poland. She is also a CELTA trainer and materials writer. In February 2018, she self-published ELT Playbook 1, a book of tasks to help new teachers settle into their career and begin to build up an online support network. You can find more information on her blog: